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Coronavirus Latest: New Guidelines For Counties, Unemployment Spikes


The toll of the coronavirus pandemic is steep - hundreds of thousands of confirmed infections around the world, tens of thousands of lives lost.


And in the U.S., one more measure. Today we learned that more than 3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, by far the biggest one-week spike in history. Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell was candid on NBC's "Today" show. He said technically, we may well be in a recession. And as for a recovery...


JEROME POWELL: It will really depend on the spread of the virus. The virus is going to dictate the timetable here.

SHAPIRO: This afternoon, a new strategy coming out of the White House. The Trump administration is working on guidelines based on testing data to help categorize counties as high, medium or low risk for the corona virus.

For more, we're joined now by White House correspondent Tamara Keith, chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley and science correspondent Richard Harris. Good to have all three of you here.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be here.


SHAPIRO: Tam, let me start with you. What can you tell us about these new guidelines and when states might start to see them?

KEITH: President Trump had a conference call with the nation's governors today. He also sent them a letter saying that the federal government plans to come out with new guidelines so that counties with less of a problem could potentially scale back closures and other social distancing measures. The timeline is not clear, though. President Trump speaking at the White House again today made it clear that he wants to see a light at the end of this tunnel.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is a country that was built on getting it done, and our people want to go back to work. I'm hearing it loud and clear from everybody.

KEITH: But we still don't have a lot of details about what this will look like. Vice President Mike Pence, as he often is, was more measured as he described the path forward.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We'll be presenting - this weekend - the president a range of recommendations and additional guidance for going forward. The president's made it clear that, in his words, he wants to open the country up. But we're going to do that responsibly. And as the president told the governors today, we'll do that based on the data.

KEITH: Now why this weekend? Remember that 15 days to slow the spread that President Trump announced about a week and a half ago - you know, no gatherings of more than 10 people, vulnerable stay at home, other social distancing measures? Well, that runs out on Monday. Even President Trump, though, acknowledged that that likely isn't the end of this.

SHAPIRO: So, Richard, tell us about how this idea of separating counties into low, medium, and high risk would work, especially when there isn't widely available testing in all of those counties. I mean, what's to stop somebody from a high-risk county from just driving to a low-risk county to go to a restaurant?

HARRIS: That's a good question, and Dr. Deborah Birx, who's the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, was asked that at the briefing today. Here's her explanation.


DEBORAH BIRX: Part of this will be the need to have highly responsible behavior between counties. And I think the American people can understand that, that they will understand where the virus is because we'll have the testing data and where it isn't, and make sure that they're taking appropriate precautions as they move in and out of spaces.

HARRIS: But I must say there is a great deal of skepticism about this strategy. Counties everywhere will need to be able to run tests at will and have an army of people to track down not only people who are sick but also their contacts. The country is not at all set up to do that. The testing part, as you know, is still struggling to get up to speed, and there are still - with supply shortages and so on. And that's actually the easy part compared with the challenge of training people to track down cases in their contacts.

I talked via Skype today to Jeremy Konyndyk, a former official in the Obama administration who's now at the Center for Global Development. He says it just doesn't make sense to be talking about setting Easter or any other time as a goal.

JEREMY KONYNDYK: The White House is arguing over when do we lift this as if that's even a relevant question right now. It's not. The relevant question right now is, holy God, how do we build the Manhattan Project for Public Health over the next two months so that we can avoid losing hundreds of thousands of American lives?

SHAPIRO: I'd like to ask you, Scott, about the economic impact of all of this because we learned today that almost 3.3 million people applied for unemployment benefits last week - just an extraordinary number. What does that tell us?

HORSLEY: Ari, it dwarfs anything we've ever seen before. It's nearly five times what we saw during the worst week in the Great Recession. We are witnessing an abrupt and unprecedented shutdown of a big chunk of the U.S. economy. And as bad as these numbers are, they still don't tell the whole story because remember; a lot of people who were out of work last week weren't able to file for unemployment because the government phone lines and the websites were overwhelmed. In addition, we continue to see more businesses closing their doors this week, so we haven't gotten to the end of the pain just yet.

SHAPIRO: And all of the freelancers and self-employed people and gig workers are not counted in that - the three plus million number. And yet the stock market was up today. Why?

HORSLEY: Yeah, both the Dow and the S&P 500 were up more than 6%, more than 1,300 points for the Dow. Investors do seem to be encouraged by this $2 trillion rescue package that the Senate passed last night. That will provide a cushion for some of these newly unemployed. It also offers direct payments for most Americans and hundreds of billions of dollars for businesses that have been adversely affected. In addition, investors may be reacting to the noise coming out the White House suggesting that the more restrictive public health measures could be lifted sooner rather than later.

SHAPIRO: Well, speaking of the White House, Tam, how is the president responding to the economic aspect of all of this?

KEITH: You know, he is, as we've talked about, very eager to get businesses back and reopen. And clearly, some of his eagerness is related to concerns about the economy and these big, bad numbers. And he's been getting an earful from outside advisers and business leaders and other people. President Trump said that this massive new claims number was expected and that he worries it will be harder to bounce back if businesses remain closed for too long.

Vice President Pence also said that the numbers were unfortunate, but he tried to put a more positive spin on the situation and accentuated the positive by pointing out that several large retailers and a national pizza chain have announced they plan to hire something like half a million new people to respond to new demand related to not leaving our houses.

SHAPIRO: Well, Scott, how fast might the economy bounce back? I mean, the Fed chairman Jerome Powell seems to think it could be quick.

HORSLEY: That's right. I mean, we have in effect slammed the brakes on the economy in an effort to control the coronavirus. But both the Federal Reserve and now Congress are pumping out a whole lot of money, a sort of multitrillion dollar airbag, to cushion that sudden stop. And Powell told NBC this morning if all that works, it's possible we could see a fairly robust recovery.


POWELL: If we get the - get the virus spread under control fairly quickly, then economic activity can resume.

HORSLEY: And as Tam says, the president is itching to open up the economy quickly. I should note, though, there was a trio of economists from the Fed and MIT who did a study looking back at the 1918 flu. What they found was the parts of the country that were most aggressive about pursuing public health measures were also the parts of the country that enjoyed the strongest economic rebound in the long run.

SHAPIRO: Richard, when you look at what the U.S. is proposing here, how does this compare to what China did to get the coronavirus under control in the last few months?

HARRIS: Well, China did social isolation as we're doing. But on top of that, very early on they also did massive testing, contact tracing and isolating sick people, which we're just now starting to talk about, at least on a nationwide basis. And they were able to confine most of their epidemic to one limited area.

Ours is more like a bonfire that has sent sparks into all 50 states, many of which have already flared up into serious problems, and others are just getting going. And I will say that today the Johns Hopkins map that keeps track of this reported that the number of known cases in the U.S. has now topped 80,000. So we are now on top of the leaderboard, ahead of China, which has reported that the epidemic there is under control. And our numbers are still going up and up and up.

SHAPIRO: A place on the leaderboard that no country would want to be. NPR's Richard Harris, Tamara Keith and Scott Horsley, thanks to all three of you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.